Some of the things that strike me about this story are that Elizabeth was six when she was placed in the household of neighbor and godfather Humphrey Higginson as an indentured servant (the same age as my daughter is now); that Elizabeth was later transferred to Colonel John Mottrom and moved about 100 miles to the north in undeveloped Northumberland County, where she met and fell in love with a young English lawyer working in Mottrom's Coan Hall. That lawyer, William Grinstead, took up her freedom suit, which she won, then had overturned, before finally winning before the Virginia General Assembly in 1656. This allowed Elizabeth and William to marry, provided the financial support for their children, and set the stage for the story to be remembered and told to future generations.
There are many articles and writings on this story and I cannot claim to have completed my research. If there are other researchers who have additional information, please let me know. I am happy to share and discuss Elizabeth's story and those of her descendants.
Article by Anna Belle Pfau, 10 Feb 2011; searching for original image this picture is taken from & would be interested to know more about this image]
Daughter of Thomas Key
Elizabeth was born about 1630 in historical Warwick County, Virginia (modern Newport News), not far from Jamestown and Williamsburg in the original Virginia Colony. Her mother was a slave of African ancestry, and Elizabeth was the illegitimate child of Englishman and Burgess, Thomas Key. Thomas was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses during its March 1629/1630 session.
Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1619-1658/59. McIlwaine, H.R. (Henry Read), 1864-1934, ed.; Kennedy, John Pendleton, 1871-, ed; Virginia State Library; www.archive.org/details/journalsofhousb1619virg]. Key represented Denbigh (Denbigh Plantation) in 1629/1630. Denbigh appears in red in the map below:
In records, Thomas Key is referred to as an "ancient planter", which meant that Thomas had arrived in the Virginia Colony before 1616, remained for a period of three years and paid his passage.
According to the Virtual Jamestown site, a Thomas Keie, age 30, arrived in Jamestown on the ship Prosperous in June 1619. His wife Sarah Keie arrived in 1622 on the ship Truelove. Both appear on the muster of 21 January 1624/25 (see database at http://www.virtualjamestown.org/Muster/muster24.html). If this was Thomas Key, father of Elizabeth, then he would have been born about 1594.
On 2 December 1626, Martha Key, wife of Thomas Key, was given a land patent for 150 acres lying on Warwicksqueake River, opposite the land of Nathaniel Basse, in Isle of Wight County (and on the opposite side of the James River from Denbigh). See Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents, Virginia Historical Magazine, 1894:
I think it is likely that Thomas Key set up his wife with the Isle of Wight property in exchange for being able to live with his servant and the mother of Elizabeth, without his wife being in the household. This is just an assumption on my part, but one I think is very plausible.
Thomas Key does not appear in the records of the House of Burgesses after 1630, which was around the time that Elizabeth was born.
Here is a later map of the James River and Warwick County area (dated 1781, by John Lodge, http://alabamamaps.ua.edu/historicalmaps/us_states/virginia/index.html):
In 1636, Thomas Key was fined by a circuit court in Blunt Point for fathering Elizabeth as an illegitimate child.
After this case, Key took responsibility for Elizabeth, arranged for her baptism and placed her in the custody of Humphrey Higginson by a nine-year indenture. Higginson was to act as her guardian, but she was to be free at the age of 15 [Banks, 820]. Thomas Key died in 1636, and Elizabeth was cared for by Higginson for the next four years.
In the household of Humphrey Higginson
According to the agreement with Key, Higginson was to provide Elizabeth with food, clothing during the nine-year term. If Humphrey were to die during the term, then Elizabeth was to be set free. If Humphrey returned to England, he was to take her with him. Higginson did return to England, but not with Elizabeth.
Higginson's land was located near the head of Archer's Hope Creek. Elizabeth would have lived on this property during her years with Higginson. He was apparently a large landowner, served as a tobacco inspector, and on the Council of Virginia in 1641.
During her time with Higginson and his family, it was clear that Elizabeth was known as a child of Thomas Key, as later witnesses would testify in 1655/56.
Transfer to John Mottrom & Move to Northumberland County
About 1640, Higginson transferred Elizabeth to Colonel John Mottrom. Mottrom was the first English settler in the area of Northern Neck, and founded Northumberland County. He became the first Burgess of the county in 1645. Elizabeth would have been 10 years old when she accompanied Mottrom to the county, and very likely never saw her mother or her birth home in Warwick County after moving 100 miles up the bay, near where the Potomac River empties into the Chesapeake.
Researcher Martha Hardcastle wrote in her 2003 article in the Dayton Daily News (see copy on Rootsweb) that in 1650 "Mottrom brought a group of 20 men, white indentured servants from England, to Coan Hall, his estate in Northumberland County. For every sponsored servant, a Virginian would receive 50 acres of land. Each indenture would serve six years."
"Among those indentures was a 16-year old William Grinstead, a young lawyer. Although Grinstead's parents are not known, it is likely he was a younger son of an attorney who learned his father's trade...Mottrom soon recognized Grinstead's value and had him represent him in legal matters."
Elizabeth and William Grinstead fell in love at Coan Hall, and between 1650 and 1656, the couple had two children. Because of Elizabeth's status, the couple were not permitted to marry.
Mottrom ran the territory of Northumberland County from his home at Coan Hall, which became the county seat. He was the justice, burgess of the county, grew tobacco, and led the community as protestants crossed over from Maryland to Northern Neck.
I have seen reference to legal action by William Grinstead against Mottrom, but need to look into this further. I haven't had time to go to the Library of Virginia or look at Northumberland County records other than what is available at the Barrett Branch of the Alexandria Library.
Mottrom died in 1655.
The Case & Appeals
When Mottrom died, Elizabeth brought suit against Mottrom's estate in Northumberland County for her freedom. Her case was heard before a jury on 20 January 1655/1656. The jury agreed that Elizabeth's father was Thomas Key, and that since he was an Englishman (and presumptively free), freedom passed by birth to Elizabeth [see Banks, 811].
The Mottrom estate challenged the decision in General Court. "The General Court met in Jamestown and had both original and appellate jurisdiction in all cases arising in the Colony." [Banks, 811]. Her case was heard in the March 1655/1656 session. The court found that she was a slave. Elizabeth appealed the decision and petitioned to the General Assembly for a hearing.
In her case, Elizabeth presented witnesses who described her transfer to Higginson. One witness testified that Higginson agreed he would care for her as if she were his own child. Another witness testified that she saw Thomas Key go to bed with Elizabeth's mother many times and that the witness heard her say that Elizabeth was Thomas Key's daughter [Deposition of Alice Larrett].
A transcription of the case can be found at http://b-womeninamericanhistory17.blogspot.com/2009/05/elizabeth-key-slave-or-free.html and http://genealogenie.net/northumberland/docs/KeyElizabeth.html.
On 21 July 1656, the General Assembly found that she was the child of a free Englishman, and that she was herself free. She was awarded "corn, clothes and satisfaction" from her years with Mottrom by the Mottrom estate. At the conclusion of the case, Elizabeth and William Grinstead were married. This is a remarkable decision, given the time and the status of mixed-race children in the Virginia Colony.
"These are to Certifie whome it may concerne that William Greensted and Elizabeth Key intends [sic] to be joyned in the Holy Estate of Matrimony. If any one can shew any Lawfull cause why they may not be joyned together lett them Speake or ever after hold their tongues Signum William Greensted Signum Elizabeth Key 21th July 1656 this Certificate was Published in open Court and is Recorded
I Capt. Richard Wright administrator of the Estate of Col. John Mottrom deceased doe assigne and transfer unto William Greensted amaid servant formerly belonging unto the Estate of the said Col. Mottrom commonly called Elizabeth Key being nowe Wife unto the said Greensted and doe warrant the said Elizabeth and doe bind my Selfe to save here [i.e., her] and the said Greensted from any molestation or trouble that shall or futurely arise from or by any person or persons thatshall pretend or claime any title or interest to any manor of service[original torn] from the said Elizabeth witness [my ha]nd this 21th of July 1659  Test William Thomas, Richard Wright, James Austen"
William Grinstead died in 1661 (he would have been about 27 years old). Elizabeth died about 1665, she would have been about 35.
In 1662, the Virginia General Assembly changed the law and proclaimed that the status of children follows that of the mother instead of the father [Banks, 814]. This became the rule throughout the British American colonies. I highly recommend reading Taunya Lovell Banks' law review article on the case.
From a personal perspective, it is fascinating to see how William, as a young attorney, was able to help Elizabeth shape the necessary legal arguments to secure her freedom and status for their children.
I graduated from law school in 2001, a little over 345 years after Elizabeth won her case through the General Assembly. As my own children grow up and learn about Virginia history, I want to make sure they know the role their ancestors played and the struggles they faced in determining their own future.
Below are a collection of sources providing detail on Elizabeth's case. I intend to add further information to this post.
- Wikipedia entry, Elizabeth Key Grinstead
- Taunya Lovell Banks, "Dangerous Woman: Elizabeth Key's Freedom Suit - Subjecthood and Racialized Identity in Seventeenth Century Colonial Virginia", 41 Akron Law Review 799 (2008), Digital Commons Law, University of Maryland.
- Martha Hardcastle, "Black History Shines New Light on Color," Dayton Daily News, Dayton, Ohio, 30 January 2003.
- The Case of Elizabeth Key, 1655/1656 Northumberland County Record Books, 1652-1658, fols. 66-67, 85; 1658-1660, fol. 28; Northumberland County Order Book, 1652-1665, fols. 40, 46, 49. University of Chicago (http://genealogenie.net/northumberland/docs/KeyElizabeth.html).
- Mario de Valdes y Cocom, PBS Frontline: The Blurred Racial Lines of Famous Families, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/secret/famous/greenstead.html.
- Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, published by the Virginia Historical Society, Vol. 2, No. 1, Jul 1894, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4241796.
- "Three Stories of Black Women from American History" by Anna Belle Pfau, 10 February 2011, The New Agenda, http://www.thenewagenda.net/2011/02/10/three-stories-of-black-women-from-american-history/.
I am still collecting more information, but it appears that a Dutch ship brought the first Africans to Virginia in 1619 (see http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/jamesriver/colonization.htm). This is an era of the Colonization period that I have not previously read much about, and will be doing more research. It is likely that Elizabeth's mother arrived in the Newport News area sometime between 1619-1629.
My Connection to Elizabeth Key Grinstead
The connection to this great story runs from my Mom's side, via my 3rd-great-grandmother Melissa Catherine Grinstead. She was born on 8 February 1843 in Warren County, Kentucky, the daughter of Thomas Grinstead and Mary Petrie. Melissa married Robert Jackson Wheatley. I am connected through their son, my 2nd-great-grandfather, Thomas Whitley. [I will have more posts on the Whitleys, the spelling of their last name was often Wheatley or Whitley].
Thomas Grinstead was born in Virginia on 24 December 1802. He moved to Warren County, Kentucky sometime before 1825. Thomas was the son of David Grinstead and Nancy Ann Warren.
David Grinstead was born in Henrico County, Virginia in 1763, and died in Warren County, Kentucky on 19 October 1850. David was the son of John Grinstead (1718-1791). John sold his land in Northumberland County in 1748 and moved to Henrico County, Virginia. John was the grandson of William Grinstead, born in 1660, son of Elizabeth Key and William Grinstead.
Here are some threads I am parking for future research:
- Where in England was Thomas Key from, and when did he arrive in the Virginia Colony?
- Original documents on Key's holdings in Warwick County (if copies still exist); and the transfer of Elizabeth to Higginson
- Copies of the original case in the Northumberland Court and any papers that may have been filed by William Grinstead (if these still exist)
- Information on the descendants of Elizabeth and William, and on what happened to their children after both died in 1662 & 1665.